Eataly New York seems designed to be an Italian-style nightmare. From the chaotic layout that shoves people together, to the none-sensesical division of various products, there’s nothing that makes sense about the store’s design. As Eataly Turin Lingotto — which effortlessly directs foot traffic — proves, this issue isn’t endemic to the Eataly chain. Neither is it endemic to New York buildings, as the comparatively well-designed Chelsea Market shows. Rather it seems that Farinetti, Batali and Bastianich cleverly designed Eataly New York to build a screen of italianità, italian-ness, as it exists in the foreigner’s perception.
Although I’d previously shopped at Eataly in New York, I was interested in examining how the American version compared to the Italian one. After all, it takes a few visits to the supermarket to focus your thoughts on analysis as opposed to survival.
The first stop was a meal. Although the pizza/pasta and fish restaurants boasted a nearly hour-long, I was seated immediately at Verdure. This discrepancy surprised me. Most likely Eataly customers are either less eager to spend money on vegetables, don’t perceive vegetables as a sign of Italian food or vegetables in general don’t carry the same fetishized appeal as a ‘Vera Pizza Napoletana’ carries. As soon as I sat down, a waitress came over with some bread wrapped up in a paper napkin and poured olive oil on a plate. We weren’t in Italy any more.
While the design leave one frustrated, the menu leaves one perplexed. Was it really necessary to add shiitake mushrooms? Did the semolina gnocchi need a chili sauce? What about the sweet vinegar over the polenta? While the meals clearly relate to Italian food, they do not uphold the notion that ‘Eataly is Italy’. Which begs the question: why do we visit Eataly? Do we visit to buy ingredients, eat Italian food, confirm our notions about Italian food or for another reason altogether?
The check out, once you find it, begins to answer these questions. Ice-filled trolleys with unfinished wood panelling boast the ubiquitous impulse purchases. Rather than presenting tins of leone liquorice or venchi tartufi, you find packs of prosciutto and containers of mozzarella. In Eataly New York, prosciutto and mozzarella attain meaning similar to small bottles of hand sanitizer and holiday-themed Reese’s eggs: you may not have come for them, but you can’t leave without them.
Eataly deserves more critical analysis. While there’s an interesting (though dry) article about Eataly’s consumer demographics in Italy, there’s little comparable journalistic writing. The vast majority of articles about Eataly sing its praises because it’s unique and one of a kind. It won’t be for long. Eataly recently announced that they planned to open another location in New York. A mexican-themed food market just opened and there are plans for a French-style emporium as well. To what extent can we be entertained with gastro-tourism? This trend doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon. Though whether authenticity chooses to stop by is another question entirely. Perhaps the one we should be thinking about.